The Humble Breadboard

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NOTE:  This is the part of an experiment I’m doing on the blog. I’m not sure what the experiment is but I think it will involve more words in the postings than usual.

A big shout-out today to the humble electronics prototyping breadboard. Like many things I use regularly (like coffee), it is something I easily take for granted (unlike coffee). But consider life without it. Ok fine, life in the BIG picture wouldn’t be that different. But for the very small community that cares about such things its a big deal.

Did you know — that the breadboard is so named because “back in the day,” people used actual wood bread cutting boards to lay out experimental electronic circuits? Circuit diagrams would be pasted or drawn on the wood surface, and circuit components would be screwed down and wired together as the project developed. What we know today as the electronics breadboard, with its power buses at the outer edges and the numbered rows of terminal holes, was designed by Ronald J. Portugal of EI Instruments Inc. in 1971.

When I was a kid (maybe 8 or 10) I used these all the time. I would hole up in my room with breadboard, Forrest M. MimsElectronics Workbook   (Perhaps Radio Shack’s greatest contribution to the world) and a pile of wires and components. I would spend hours putting together circuits that would occasionally work (I particularly remember my disappointment at a failed touch switch circuit). LED arrays were pretty new then, so “digital” timers were one of my favs. Eventually, though, I got caught shoplifting resistors and IC’s one too many times and was sent to boarding school (where my only attempt at electronics resulted in blowing the dorm’s fuses). My relationship with the breadboard was put on hold for 10 years or so. During which time I discovered computers.

Then, when I was in college, I majored in Electrical Engineering.  For our final project we had to build (in teams of 3) a working computer out of standard 7400 series chips and a stone-age microprocessor the name of which I forgot long ago. It interfaced with a keyboard and monitor and all the electronics were contained in 3 briefcases filled with breadboard. Nothing fancy, no indestructible pelican cases or james bond type enclosures that would make geeks drool. They were just dirt-brown plastic boxy cases with power supplies and rows of breadboard built in. The kind of thing you’d see, well, nowhere really. The professor – one of the oldest in the department – gave each team their three cases, a stack of photocopied reference materials, and said “see ya in five months.” I don’t recall him being around much for help, either. Asking him questions during his infrequent office hours always seemed to leave me more confused than before. In the end our computer “kinda” worked (I believe the problem was our wires leading to the memory input buffer were too long and so our data “floated” too much before it could get locked into RAM) and I was too traumatized to do any electronics for another 10 years, when I started doing some work-related prototyping.

What made me think of this? Its pretty silly actually. I recently started following Adafruit on instagram and their pix are always so fine that I couldn’t resist when I saw a photo of one of their breadboard kits.

Plus I’m procrastinating from doing my drawings. Even though it’s a beautiful late Friday afternoon, I really should get back to work.